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The best handheld Mario game to date takes its time to draw you... Oh wait, it doesn't. A perfectly formed Mario adventure. Spot-on handheld gaming.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
We’re going to start this review with a question. There is no right and wrong answer- to every single person, the response shall be different. To some it shall bring about memories of childish glee, to others it’s the kind of respect that can rarely be mustered during a video game review. Others may react snottily, looking down on the subject matter, while there are large groups who, quite simply, will just grin. Let’s see how you respond. What does Super Mario mean to you?
Apparently, to Nintendo, it’s hope. For some reason, sceptics believe the 3DS is already dying on its feet and desperately in need of a triple-A game. While said sceptics are ignoring a catalogue of good games, Super Mario 3D Land does feel like the definitive 3DS experience we’ve been waiting for ever since playing about with AR Card tricks got dull. Bright, colourful and unashamedly 3D, 3D Land feels less like a Galaxy-style celebration of platforming bliss and more a way of finding exactly what works for Nintendo’s screen-popping magic box.
Visually, it’s one of the most impressive things on 3DS. While in stills it looks a tad grainy, in action the game looks just as smooth as Galaxy 2 on the Wii, running the same frame rate in both two and three dimensions. You’re given options on how you want the top screen’s magic trick to work, with the D-Pad being used to choose between poppy-outy 3D or added depth to the game’s world, letting you plot every jump exactly.
The thing about Mario’s 3D is that it feels relevant. While PilotWings and StarFox helped you feel immersed in the game’s world, they never genuinely felt like a part of the gameplay itself. Instead, Nintendo tailor entire sections just for use of the third dimension. There are puzzle rooms that can’t be finished in 2D, as blocks with star coins appear to be where they aren’t- Something only a stronger depth and greater sense of perspective can solve. We managed to finish the majority of levels with the 3D switched off, but it was considerably more frustrating as we missed platforms and skipped power-ups because we couldn’t quite tell where they were without being enwrapped by another dimension.
Speaking of power-ups, Nintendo’s choice to revive the old style of Mario gameplay (Run button, take a hit and shrink, then die) instead of sticking with the traditional 3D ‘health pie’ and auto-sprints is something to which we adapted with surprising ease. It took roughly a level to find out feet and get Mario back to being the springy, athletic old thing he was in the two Galaxy games, even if it does involve holding Y. Even nicer than bounding around as normal Mario is the range of suits on offer, each with unique advantages as well as their own downfalls. Whereas previous Mario games tend to just give you the suit that gives you the standard path through the level, if you’re going to collect all the Star Coins and get the best times (Which, in a nice touch, are shared over Streetpass, meaning that everyone you walk past can see your awesome 40-second run of World 3-2 without a console being brandished in their face) you’ll need to trawl back through levels and grab older power-ups to help you, adding a puzzle-solving element to the usually skill-based pursuit of collecting extras- The raccoon tail gives you extra hovering power, while the boomerang brings back any coins it touches, but sometimes you’ll need fire Mario to light the way through the level. There’s a genuine balance that’s never been felt in a Mario game before that each suit is equally useful in its own way.
This puzzle-solving is necessary, though, as if you’re just to blast through all eight world and call it a day, then you’re not going to get much value for money out of 3D Land. Finishing the ‘main’ quest took us just under four hours with around half of the Star Coins, although we imagine those of you out there who aren’t Mario ninjas may take around 5 and a half. The issue isn’t the lack of content, but the lack of challenge. Levels are designed for handheld consumption- They’re supposed to fit your 3-minute bus journeys, the 100-second waits scattered throughout the day rather than 4 hours of straight play, as we essentially did. There’s also an almost total lack of challenge up to World 8, at which point it only really reaches the kind of levels of frustration that New Super Mario Bros Wii did around World 5.
Thankfully, then, there’s an excellent post-credits remix of the game that ramps the challenge up to the point where we went from finishing the ‘main’ game on 132 lives to finishing this one on 74, still collecting some along the way. A huge improvement, it justifies the game that justifies 3D existence, also giving you an extra bunch of Star Coins to hunt, as well as flagpole tips to hit, potentially giving you another 20-odd hours of content to hunt out if you love the game enough (And, chances are, you will).
But 3D Land’s main victory isn’t the justification of 3D, the balance of items or the successful extension of a very short game, but the fact that every single minute of it you play, be it 4 hours of 40, is fun. Proper, old-school, childlike glee grin fun. Because that’s exactly what Super Mario means to us all.